City wilds

Jan next to a cottonwood in Kincaid Park.





Bill S

Bill Sherwonit

It’s time for City Wilds to get political, on a couple of fronts.

First, in an important decision that the city and state’s largest newspaper somehow failed to report, the Anchorage Assembly in early May voted overwhelmingly to enact a no-trapping zone along trails throughout the Anchorage Municipality.

When the next trapping season begins later in the year, traps will be prohibited within 50 yards of any developed trails and within a quarter-mile of trailheads, campgrounds and “permanent dwellings.”

The new ordinance also requires trappers to post either their state identification number or contact information on all traps and snares set within the municipality.

This is a big deal, for a number of reasons. For starters, though much of the municipality’s 1¼ million acres are off limits to trapping—including the Anchorage Bowl—substantial areas are not, for instance near Girdwood and in large parts of Chugach State Park. Some places with popular recreational trails have had minimal no-trapping buffers—or none at all—and there’s been no requirement that all trails open to trapping be identified. Consequently, dogs accompanying their human companions in such areas have occasionally gotten caught in traps. And some dogs have been killed in traps set within the municipality.

Trapping advocates inevitably argue that such instances are few and far between. I would respond that even one dog’s death from trapping is too many. But that’s a discussion for another time, perhaps.

The important thing right now is that the Assembly voted 9-2 to enact a 50-yard no-trapping buffer, one that doesn’t affect trappers in any significant way while increasing public safety. And as many of us who supported this ordinance have pointed out, at its heart this is a safe-trails (or safer trails) measure.

That the effort succeeded is in some ways a happy surprise—some of us might say even a small miracle—given the nature of wildlife politics in Alaska. For this, many people deserve our thanks, including (and especially) the Assembly members who sponsored the ordinance, Pete Petersen and Suzanne LaFrance, and those citizens who worked hard to get it passed, particularly attorney Kneeland (Kneely) Taylor, members of the Alaska Safe Trails group, and Rebecca Shaffer, whose dog was killed in a “conibear” trap set near Girdwood and who provided powerful first-person testimony about the need for such an ordinance. Thanks also to the many other people who eloquently voiced support of the no-trapping buffer, in both written comments and spoken words, and to those Assembly members who voted for the ordinance.

Moving on to other trail issues . . .

On the afternoon of May 8, I discovered—much to my eventual dismay—that work crews with the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (I’ll use either “ski club” or NSAA for short) had begun summer maintenance work on Kincaid Park’s ski-trail system.

I learned this while walking with Jan Myers and our two dogs along one of my favorite woodland routes, which passes through Kincaid’s “Four Corners” area.

Before continuing, I should clarify that I normally accept without protest the “off season” ski-trail work done at Kincaid, though that’s when I most enjoy and appreciate the park’s ski trails; and of course as a dedicated, year-round walker, that’s the only time I’m permitted to use them. (Those who’d like to learn more about my late-in-life walking habits can check out the City Wilds column “On Becoming an Enthusiastic Winter Hill Climber,” published in February; the website link is https://www.anchoragepress.com/sports_and_outdoors/on-becoming-an-enthusiastic-winter-hill-climber/article_f210e9a0-2a8a-11e9-8381-0b7f6cc480ca.html.)

Though I prefer the trails in their seasonally green and somewhat unruly state (tall grasses and the like by late summer), I understand the ski club needs to do some annual maintenance on the trail system, even if that means muddy areas and limited recreational access to certain sections. But this time, the crews had gone too far. Or so it seemed to me.

A north-south section of trail that runs past Four Corners had already been torn up and was something of a rutted, muddy mess, while ahead of us (that is, along our path) two guys were cutting stuff with a chainsaw and moving around forest debris with a small bulldozer-like machine.

Surprised and curious, and just a tiny bit alarmed, I walked over and asked one of the guys, “So what’s going on?”

He paused for a moment and then told me, “Trail maintenance and restoration.”

Restoration? I inwardly wondered. Restoring what? It appeared to me they were destroying things more than restoring them.

We worked our way around the work crew. Not long afterward, Jan and I began to notice that some trees along the trail were marked with a large spot of red paint; and periodic red lines, long scarlet dashes, had been sprayed along—or just beyond—the perimeters of the existing trail.

Uh-oh. It looked like the ski club planned to widen a trail that to a walker already seemed immensely wide, one that could easily accommodate both skate and diagonal skiers.

At first I supposed the marked trees meant they were to be spared. Then we came to a big, old cottonwood, marked with a red spot but with a big red question mark in front of it, as if the crew wasn’t sure if it should be saved.

Then it hit me: what if the marked trees were to be sawed down, not saved?

Looking more closely, Jan and I noticed that many of the marked trees were in line with the painted red dashes on the ground.

“This is awful,” I moaned to Jan. “They’re going to cut these trees down.”

To me it was a classic case of overkill: destroying part of the natural world, in this instance a birch-spruce-cottonwood forest, for human convenience. Or perceived improvement.

Why hadn’t we heard anything about these plans? Had there been any sort of public notice, a chance for the public to comment? This is, after all, a public park. The ski club may maintain and manage the ski trails, but it doesn’t own them. Or the surrounding forest.

My mood grew darker and I could feel a tightening in my gut. I had a bad feeling about all of this.

About that time, a trail crew member approached in one of the club’s machines. I waved him down. When it appeared he might not stop, I stepped farther onto the trail.

When the worker did finally stop, I walked over and said, “I have a question: are those marked trees going to be cut down?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “it’s all part of widening the trails.”

“Why do the trails have to be widened?” I asked. “They’re already highways.”

The man said something about the snow-grooming machine sometimes bumping into trees and stumps, complicating the job. The implication was that it wouldn’t happen with a wider trail.

“So you’re gonna take down all these trees to make trail grooming easier?”

I could sense my anger building, my voice getting louder.

The man looked at me more intently, as if deciding what to say. “You know,” he told me, “I’ve had lots of contact with people like you, always trying to make trouble.”

He too seemed to be getting steamed.

“Who do you work for?” I asked.

“The Nordic ski club.”

“And the ski club has permission to take down all these trees?”

“I don’t make the decisions; I just do the work.”

“Well, I’m going to do my best to make sure these trees don’t get cut down. You want trouble, maybe you’ll get it . . .”

“It doesn’t matter what you do, because it’s going to happen. I’ve got to go.”

And with that he resumed driving down the trail.

Energized by my anger and my amazement that this could be happening, I knew I had to find out more and spread the word about this unnecessary tree killing.

After walking farther down the trail and seeing all the marked trees—many of them large, mature birches, spruces, and cottonwoods—I decided to do something. Now. With Jan’s support, I called the municipality’s Department of Parks and Recreation and asked to speak to its director, John Rodda. He was in a meeting so I was redirected to Josh Durand, superintendent of the city’s parks.

To Durand’s great credit, he listened patiently and calmly to my story. He then explained that the ski club has an annual contract to do trail maintenance, for which it doesn’t need the city’s approval. But what I’d described sounded more like trail development, Durand continued. Tree cutting goes way beyond simple maintenance. To do that sort of work, the ski club would have to get the city’s permission and it was likely that some sort of public process involving Anchorage residents would be required.

Durand assured me he would look into the situation to learn more. In the meantime, he would contact the ski club and tell its staff to end all work beyond simple trail “grading.”

He called back several minutes later to confirm that had been done, another generous gesture.

And that’s where I’ll end for now, except to add this: over the past five days I’ve had follow-up conversations with Brad Cooke, who manages Kincaid for Parks and Rec and works closely with the ski club; and also with Joey Caterinichio, president of the NSAA’s board of directors. And I’ve had an email exchange with the Department of Park and Recreation’s director, John Rodda. All of those folks have assured me that I did the right thing by notifying Parks and Rec staff and expressing my concerns. As Brad Cooke commented, “It’s never a bad thing to hear from the public.” Caterinichio agreed, “It’s good for any member of the community to voice concerns and make sure we’re following our procedures.”

As of this writing (on May 14), it’s my understanding that the ski club will work with Parks and Rec to figure out how the annual routine “maintenance” work got amped up to include trail expansion and tree cutting and also figure where things go from here. For now and the immediate future, only simple trail “grading” will occur. I’ve also been assured that I’ll be kept “in the loop.” And I’ll recount in future City Wilds columns how things evolve from here.

Though initially shocked and dismayed, I’ve been encouraged by the response to my concerns—and yes, my complaints. It does appear that a single (loud) voice can sometimes make a difference. I’m happy and relieved that Jan and I happened to walk that route before the tree cutting began. Which reminds me: I returned a couple of days later to more closely inspect the red-marked trees and counted more than sixty, including at least a couple of dozen large, mature trees.

So now I’ll take a deep breath and relax. And I’ll follow up with additional columns about the ski club’s off-season trail maintenance program gone awry and where things go from here.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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